the story of telling

July 5, 2017

In its dictionary, the American Marketing Association (AMA) defines a brand as a “name, term, symbol, design, or other feature that distinguishes an organization or product from its rivals in the eyes of its customers.” With all due respect to the good people at the AMA, that definition is a long way out of date.

As any good marketer will know, a brand is a lot more than just a name or a symbol. They are the attributes that customers associate with a product, service, or company. They are what customers think of when they see the name or logo. The name and the symbol serve as psychological cues, bringing those attributes into the forefront of the mind. But they are not the brand itself.

Brand marks have been around for a long time; Chinese producers have been stamping makers’ marks on products for about a thousand years, but there was little  understanding of the cognitive impact that brands had. In the nineteenth century Charles Babbage, better known as the father of the modern computer, wrote about brands in his book The Economy of Machinery and Manufactures, suggesting that customers saw the brand symbol as an indicator of product quality. They would be more likely to buy trusted brands, he said, because they knew those brands would deliver value for money.

William Lever, later Lord Leverhulme and founder of a business empire that includes the modern-day Hindustan Lever, understood what Babbage was talking about. Lever designed one of the first soap brands, Sunlight, very much with the idea of communicating a message about quality. The name itself, Sunlight, implies something that is pure and clean; very much the values that people associate with soap. Lever marketed his product as brand that would deliver those values to the product’s end users.

Since Lever, we have come quite a long way forward in our understanding of brands, but still a remarkable number of myths persist about them. In this article, I want to break down some of those myths, and describe in a little more detail what brands are, and are not.

a brand is not a logo

Most brands—though not all—have logos or symbols associated with them, but as already noted, those symbols are not the brand. Instead, when people see the logo, they think of a variety of associations that they have with that brand. But those associations are quite personal to the individual.

What we know about a brand or think we know depends on how much we are aware of it, how trustworthy we believe the messages emanating from the company about the brand are, and our own past experience of that brand, positive or negative. Did the brand deliver on the promises made by advertisers and marketers? Did the quality match our expectations? Did it deliver value for money? How we react to these questions determines the strength of the brand in our own minds.

A brand is, in part, the sum total of our experience of that brand. We often privilege our personal experience over knowledge from other sources. People will remain loyal  to brands if their own experience has been positive, even if there are other more negative influences. I am as much prone to this as anyone. I have driven Volkswagen cars for over twenty years and have had very good experience. I am aware of the emissions scandal, and am appalled by it, but when it comes to replace my current car, I will probably still buy another Volkswagen. My experience has been so strongly favorable that I would consider it an unacceptable risk to switch brands.

Nor do we keep the answers to these questions to ourselves. We talk to other people, in private conversations, on social media, and so on. Over the course of time, we influence other people’s perception of the brand and are influenced by their perceptions in turn. All this interaction contributes to the strength of the brand.

The second half of the brand equation is the sum total of the stories that people tell about a particular product, service, or organization. Brands that deliver on their promises generate a lot of strong and positive stories, and are correspondingly robust. Brands that fail to deliver will suffer as people begin to talk them down.

a brand is not a product or service

It is also important to remember that the product people buy off the shelf or the service they consume is not the whole of the brand. People buy products and services for reasons that are often multiple and complex.

Take for example a simple product such as a bestselling soft drink. Make a list of the reasons why someone might buy a bottle or can of this drink. Your list might include taste, refreshment, quenching of thirst, and other obvious,  immediate benefits. But stop and think more deeply. If you do, your list will start to include such things as belongingness, the notion that by consuming this drink you are now part of a peer group of fashionable people, or at least, a group you desire to belong to.

Then think of more complex products such as cars. The benefits of buying a car can range all the way from utilitarian concepts such as transport, efficient fuel consumption, and safety to color, ride comfort, the design of the interior, and so on. Other benefits include belongingness—what kind of car we drive sends signals to others about our affluence and social station—and self-worth—what kind of car we drive bolsters our own egos and makes us feel good about ourselves.

Marketers refer to this as the ‘bundle of benefits’, the whole package of tangible and intangible, physical and psychological benefits that we derive from the purchase and consumption of goods and services. We choose brands that provide the benefits we are looking for; in other words, we choose brands that satisfy our physical and emotional needs and make us feel good about ourselves. A well-designed brand understands this and is tailored to meet a wide range of needs, to deliver the whole bundle of benefits.

companies do not create brands, people do

I still sometimes hear marketers and brand managers say things like, ‘We created this brand’, or ‘We designed this brand.’ In fact, the ability of marketers and brand managers to influence how a brand develops is quite limited. Not every brand manager likes hearing this but it is nonetheless

What can brand managers actually do? First, as just discussed, they can design the branded product or service so that it delivers what customers want (rather than what the managers want, which is far too often the case). That increases the likelihood of positive customer perceptions. Then, through the logo, brand advertising, and other forms of communication, they can create brand awareness; that is to make customers aware that the brand exists in the first place, what its features are, and where they can buy it. Third, they can monitor customer reaction to the brand and tweak features that are causing dissatisfaction or detracting from value. Fourth, they can try to influence people by spreading the work of positive experiences so that more people come to hear about the value of the brand.

And, that is about it. After that, it is down to the stakeholders, customers, of course, but as we shall see in a moment, employees play an important role too. So too does society more generally, especially when things go wrong. Volkswagen, Malaysian Airlines, Barclays Bank, and Takata, the Japanese airbag maker, are examples of companies which experienced sharp declines in their brand value when problems with their organizations hit the headlines. Most of the people who reacted negatively around the world were not customers of these companies. But they talked about and discussed the problems and told their friends, and the profile of these brands sank and sank.

Most brand creation happens outside the control of the company. Most brand reputation is generated through interactions between customers and other stakeholders without the company even being aware of it. Very often the company only becomes aware of changes in its reputation after they have taken place. The only thing the brand manager can do then is try to take advantage of any opportunities that have been created and/or mitigate the damage.

Good managers try to stay on top of what people are saying about their brands. They listen to brand stories and try to see which way the trend is going. Bad brand managers assume that all they have to do is make a product, slap a logo on it, and it will sell. It does not work that way. It never has, and it never will.

the employer brand is as important as any customer-facing brand – if not more

The UK-based firm Sports Direct sells sports-related merchandise such as football shirts around the world. It has, or had, a very good reputation with customers as a purveyor of high-quality goods. Then a rash of stories broke in the newspapers, detailing the terrible working conditions and low pay endemic in Sports Direct distribution centers. This contrasted sharply with the billionaire lifestyle of Sport’s Direct’s owner.

Employees can, if treated well, be excellent brand ambassadors. For one thing, if they like the company they are more likely to buy its products, thus becoming customers as well. Also, they will spread their positive experiences of the company among their peer groups, across social media and so on. Tata, which has long enjoyed the reputation of being a good place to work, owes much of its brand value to the loyalty and ambassadorship of its employees. The John Lewis Group in Britain is another excellent example. The group, which is owned by its employees, is full of people only too ready to talk up John Lewis, its products and its services. This in turn has a strong impact on customers and the perceptions of society at large.

Vineet Nayyar makes this point in his book Employees First, Customers Second. Look after your employees, he says, and they will look after your customers for you. Both the quality of the service and the brand stories that employees tell are hugely important in brand building.

brand management is the art of storytelling

The greatest brand manager of all time was Scheherazade. She started out really up against the wall; she had to tell her story well enough to save her life. Not only did she do that, but over time she began to influence the Shah’s own behavior. He stopped being a cruel and capricious monarch who killed people for a whim and became a just and enlightened sovereign.

I have said that there is a limited amount that brand managers can control. That is true. Brand managers are not there to ‘control’ things. They are there to spread ‘influence’, and that is quite a different thing. What brand managers do, just like Scheherazade, is tell stories about the brand. They look for positive experiences that other stakeholders have had and repeat them, spreading them around the brand community. Again like Scheherazade, they do this over and over, day in and day out, hoping to build up a momentum of positive stories about the brand.

This explains why so many advertisements, especially on television, seem to have little to do with the product. Soft drink ads are not really about the soft drink itself, they are about the experiences around consumption. Car advertisements are often derided for barely showing the car—or even not showing it at all—but the ad is not there to sell the car, it is there to tell the story around the car.

We influence people all the time through storytelling. We all do it, at work and in our everyday lives. Narratives and stories are how we make sense of the world. If you are a brand manager and want to get your brand noticed and understood, forget about designing fancy logos. Get out there and tell your story.